Zach Cahill rides off to a ranch, deep in the heart of Texas, and learns about humans – as well as cows.
A jagged scar runs through a town called Cool, the trail of destruction left by a twister that touched down here a couple of months back. The town itself is little more than a subtle widening of the freeway, a cluster of roadside burger bars and gas stations. The twister atomised one building, leaving its next-door neighbour perfectly unscathed. It uprooted hundred-year-old trees and tossed them about like bowling pins. The long highway and flat landscape afford me plenty of time to drink in the whole spectacle as we pass through in the Jeep. Big weather, big landscape. A big vehicle, in the biggest state. Must be Texas.
The Wildcatter Ranch, my destination, continues the theme of ‘big’. It is set in 1,500 acres of prime Lone Star State countryside, complete with 20 horses and 20 miles of trails to ride them over. It’s a working ranch with 35 cows, and you better believe you can shoot stuff – skeet shooting, archery and a lot more, if you ask nicely. A 90-minute drive from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Wildcatter caters to visitors from all over the world, from Spring Breakers to Financial Analysts escaping life’s grind – in fact, anyone looking to live out an authentically Texan ‘cowboy’ fantasy – albeit on a vastly more luxurious scale than your average dude ranch. Everything from the decor to the food, to the activities, is geared toward offering a slice of the ‘real’ Texas, the Jungian archetype of Texas-ness that lives in all our minds. Yee and indeed Haw.
I’ve got my own wood cabin for the week with a porch overlooking the rugged North Texas hill country. But – luckily since I’m not very rugged – there’s a hot tub and an infinity pool too. This would be a great place to go all Henry David Thoreau, cast off my iPhone and write one of those technology-detox, return-to-nature type stories. But I don’t want to do that. I’m here because I’ve realised that despite the supposed interconnectedness of our digital world, despite considering myself an open-minded guy, I still spend all of my time with people who basically agree with me. Oh, sure we’ll have spirited debates over bottles of wine about how exactly we should smash the patriarchy, but we all at least agree that the patriarchy is A – a thing, and B – something that needs smashing. It amounts to tidying up around the edges of ideas we largely agree upon. The Venn diagram of my closest friends’ opinions, versus that of my own is basically a circle.
I want to challenge that. I want to meet and work with people who live an entirely different life and disagree with me on fundamental issues, and then I want to shut the hell up and listen to them. And so I thought – where better for a wet, European leftie to find a conflicting opinion than Graham, Texas smack in the middle of the presidential campaign of Donald J Trump?
“You can never have too many pairs of pliers,” Jay shouts over his shoulder as he clears out the front seat of his pickup truck, ready to give me the grand tour and first insight into life on the ranch. Jay is my wrangler for the day, a full-on, double-denim, ten-gallon hat cowboy. He has a deep tan and the kind of endlessly relaxed attitude you’d have if you’d been doing your dream job for the last decade. “Wire, knife, backpack, cordless drill,” he continues. “In the event of a global catastrophe, this truck is just about the safest place to be.”
We drive to the stables where I meet Billy Joe McCoy (I know it’s a suspiciously perfect name, but I promise it’s real), the ranch’s farrier. Billy is responsible for keeping the horses’ footwear in order and I catch him right in the middle of doing what he does best. Clad in a leather apron, a horse’s foot clamped between his legs, he hammers a nail through a new shoe with a sniper’s accuracy. He’s a garrulous guy, telling me all about his favourite new anvil with noise-cancelling aluminium base, important because “When you’re whuppin’ on it all day it can make a hell of a racket.” If I came here in search of the essence of Texan-ness, I appear to have hit the mother lode, and it’s not even 10am. Billy goes into a detailed spiel about how hammering a nail into a thousand-pound animal’s foot, while gripping said foot between your vulnerable human knees, and not getting eviscerated, is largely based on feel. I guess the horse in question must have been feeling it, because it received its manicure patiently, snorting and farting exuberantly.
Jay returns with Leonard, his hyperactive border collie, and bets me a beer that we’ll find a newborn calf on our tour of the hills, so off we go. As we leave, I ask Billy the horse’s name.
“Wildcatter caters to visitors from all over the world, from spring breakers to financial analysts escaping life’s grind.”
“Don’t know, I only look at ‘em from the knees down.” The horse farts again. “I’ll call this one Butthole!” he cackles.
I learn from Jay that much like shoeing horses, spotting pregnant cows is very much a ‘feel’ thing. Apparently, their hindquarters start to move a little funny – Jay refers to it as ‘springing’– that’s when you know they’re ready.
Leonard darts ahead, leaping over fences and scrambling through the brush. This is a dog with a job; his dream job. If that newborn calf is out there, the first Jay will know of it is when it stumbles drunkenly over the sun-drenched hilltop, followed by a proud, lolloping Leonard. This all seems very casual compared to say, lambing season back home, a highly involved process marked by early starts and constant vigilance – so say my friends back home in Ireland.
“Yep, goats and lambs don’t have a real good will to live,” says Jay. “Cows are hardy, especially ones from Texas.”
My farm-hand apprentice role today is to help Jay separate some calves from the herd to be sold off. The dog springs into action, helping Jay chase them into an enclosed field while I man the gate. Now and then, Leonard seems to get a little intimidated by the 10 tons of pissed-off beef staring back at him, as do I, and both he and I look over to Jay for reassurance. ´Donõt be a weenie, Leonard,ª Jay shouts, “Push ‘em up!” and the dog dives back into the fray with gusto as I slam the gate.
Eyes still on the hill, there’s no new calf today, so Jay owes me a beer. But first, there are horses to ride and guns to shoot, as expected of any cowboy adventure – now we’re talking. As we walk off, I sport a John Wayne gait – and I catch a glimpse of something a little out of place about Jay’s boots.
“If I came here in search of the essence of Texas-ness, I appear to have hit the mother lode, and it’s not even 10am.”
“Don’t make fun of my heart-shaped spurs,” he says catching my enquiring glances. He kneels down and adjusts something on his feet – which, on closer inspection, are indeed quite fabulously pink and heart-shaped. “I was having ‘em made for a girl for Valentine’s Day, but we never made it to Valentine’s Day, so now I got heart-shaped spurs.”
A horse is a lot like a toddler. It’s smart, but not that smart. It can be impulsive, moody, skittish or playful. The difference is that this toddler weighs as much as a car, can run about as fast as one and you’re strapped to it by your feet. So how do you get a toddler to do what it’s told? According to Jay, it’s as simple as “Ask, ask, tell”. You ask a horse to move forward by loosening the reigns. If that doesn’t work you ask again more firmly, by making little clucking or kissing noises. This pretty much always does the trick, but if the mule is still unmoved, you give it a little squeeze with your thighs and you’re off. The rest of the controls are so simple that you can imagine Steve Jobs praising the horse for its intuitive user interface. You pull the reigns gently to the left if you want to go left, right means right, and pulling back equals hitting the breaks. Got it? Good.
I certainly get it, or at least I don’t send the damn thing careening over the cliff edge. Considering I haven’t been on a horse since childhood, I’m starting to feel pretty damn rugged after all. The horse will get distracted now and then and pursue its own agenda, a particularly delicious-looking branch, say, or another horse’s butt that desperately requires sniffing, but Jay just yells over “You’re driving the bus, remember?” and with a firm tug of the reigns we get back on the trail.